Oregon medical marijuana growers are allowed up to six plants per patient, and many patients grow for themselves. So if you’re an experienced and ambitious grower, but you’re only allowed half a dozen plants, what do you do? You grow them really, really big.
Under the Radar
The Pacific Northwest grows some of the world’s best marijuana, and legalization in Washington and Oregon has legitimized this rapidly expanding industry. Huge green crosses now advertise cannabis businesses along I-5, and the region’s green rush has been augmented by legalization in California, creating a sold green bloc of legal West Coast states. Competition has lowered prices, but the demand remains high, especially for organic, pesticide-free, medical-grade cannabis.
Southern Oregon, a prime growing region, has flown under the radar for many years—perhaps for as long as Northern California has been celebrated as the capital of cannabis horticulture. But that’s just fine with Oregon’s southern growers, who rightfully boast that their weed is at least as good as Cali herb, and their trees every bit as tall. The lack of national notoriety has hardly prevented them from selling everything they can grow to eager buyers.
In Southern Oregon, 15-foot cannabis plants—growing in fertile soil under intense sunshine and torrential rain—are not uncommon. Any myth that fat 16-inch colas are less potent than smaller buds is instantly dispelled by a puff on the region’s justifiably popular varieties. Some are grown here exclusively, and clones of these proprietary strains are shared among trusted groups of growers establishing their now-legal regional cannabis brands, much like winemakers protect and promote their varietals. Organic soil, clean water, premium amendments and lots of sun are the keys to successful growing here.
Each season, Lambsbread, a hardcore cultivator and medical marijuana user, grows out just six plants—but they are huge, with the largest, a Lemon Kush, topping 14 feet last fall. Many others in this region south of the city of Grants Pass grow plants this large, or even larger. How do they do it?
“A lot of hard work,” Lambsbread says with a smile. He’s developed his own method for growing giant, potent plants that yield five to seven pounds of bud each. He maintains a year-round cultivation cycle, culminating in the dry summer months when the plants expand to fill 8-foot-square enclosures rigged with 6-inch-square galvanized field fencing, at heights that require a 10-foot ladder to harvest the tops.
Lambsbread and a helper harvested the plants last October, in the first hours of a torrential rainstorm that threatened to soak the plants for days. “The entire meadow flooded,” he says. “There was so much water that the plastic tubs we were throwing the buds into kept floating away.” After nine round trips—and nine changes of clothes—all of the buds were safely stowed in his drying shed, where fans and a wood stove keep things dry.
The growing cycle actually started anew while the big plants were flowering, when Lambsbread took clones from them on August 10. This is his method for propagating field clones:
First, he fills a 1-quart Mason jar partway with well water and adds a couple drops of vinegar to make sure the pH is neutral. Then he places the cut clones upright in the jar to transport them. After that, he dips each clone stem in Olivia’s Cloning Gel, plants them in Oasis 1¼” (medium) cubes and places them in a humidome. (Lambsbread uses a customized clone humidome that he created from a clear plastic tub that is 2′ x 3′ x 2′ and fits 50 clones, but any clear dome should work.) The clones stay in the dome for 10 days to two weeks, under natural or fluorescent light. Then he transplants each clone cube into a 16-ounce plastic starter cup filled most of the way with organic potting soil.
Alternatively, if the clone mothers are growing indoors, Lambsbread dips these clones in a rooting compound, liquid-vitamin-B-enriched water or a water-soluble rooting hormone, and places them in a hydroponic cloning machine before transplanting them to the starter cups.
“One of the traits that you want is when the plant remembers what to do,” Lambsbread explains. “We’re tricking the plant out of its bloom cycle and forcing it to go backwards—which is completely unnatural—to not finish its life cycle and start over. Sometimes, if you take the clone from the wrong place, the plant will only remember to finish blooming instead of reverting back to a vegetative state, even after you throw it under a 24-hour light for three months. If the plant shoots out a single leaf, and if you see above that a three-bladed leaf, then it’s back into the veg state. The plant elongates, the shape of the plant changes, and then you can veg it out.”
His clones are grown indoors under 18 hours of light for four months, and he takes care not to under- or overwater them. While the medium used in the starter cup is a basic organic-soil mix, after a few months the plants are transplanted into 2-gallon containers holding a soil mix with higher nutrient ratios.
Good Soil Is Key
At this stage of growth, Lambsbread still uses plain water and lets the nutrients in good soil do their work. “You get the plants accustomed to this cannabis-friendly medium, and they thrive in it,” he says. “If you have pH problems with hydro, a lot more adjustment is needed. I’ve done it all, and growing in soil with proper ingredients will take you much further than trying to buy the latest gimmick off the grow-store shelf.”
Also, “do not buy shitty soil,” he emphasizes. “That’s the key: Don’t cut corners buying crappy soil. We’ve got highly committed people making great soil, like the Good Earth Organics, which makes Gaia’s Gift and ZenBlend soil mixes; they also test soil. If you’re using budget soil to save money, you could be wasting your whole year. You take all this time to cut clones, raise them, veg them; it takes a lot of effort to rototill the ground—and all that labor could be for nothing if you use shitty soil. Good soil has a level of ingredients and nutrients that are conducive to cannabis growing—it’s pH-balanced, it’s organic. One thing I use that is not organic is Maxsea, a water-soluble seaweed-based bloom food that uses a couple of nonorganic ingredients like urea.”
In mid-March, when the plants are 12 to 18 inches tall, they go into the greenhouse—a pipe structure with translucent white walls, fans and fluorescent grow lights overhead. “We add supplemental light six hours a night after sunset, using two banks of eight compact fluorescent grow lights set on automatic so the plants don’t bloom early. At a certain point, it gets warm, and we have to move the plants around the greenhouse because they get so big. The grow bag goes down 2 feet, which means the 5-foot plants are really 7 feet tall before they go in the ground. The roof comes off the greenhouse in late April.”
Big Holes for Big Plants
To prepare the ground for his plants, Lambsbread starts in March, using a shovel and rototiller to make circular holes 8 feet in diameter. He removes 8 inches of topsoil, which is then replaced by premium organic soil amended with the addition of composted “goat shit that’s been sitting in a pile for a year.” Last year, he also used “horse shit that was two or three years old that was compressed. It dries, and you get a pitchfork; you push it down until it hits the hard ground, and you get humus that is some of the best.”
Lambsbread has grown on this spot for several seasons, and he points out that the positive effect of soil amendments is cumulative, and that the initial preparation of a grow site requires a deeper hole and more intensive care than subsequent grows in the same soil. “The very first time you make the holes, dig them a foot deep and use high-quality soil—it worked out to about 8 cubic yards for the six holes. Then you add your horse shit, humus, pumice, mycorrhizae, also kelp. I used the Gaia’s Gift soil to replace the top foot of soil that was removed. Roots don’t go any deeper than 2 feet—they spread out sideways—so you want to make sure you have a horizontal space around the plants.”
The soil continues to be worked and amended in April and May. “After the second rototilling, I put in more humus, plus pumice for drainage. If you want a big plant, you have to make a big hole. The amendment process means that you’re using different soil than the native soil, so you want to build up that bed. The soil will be rototilled with amendments to build it back up for next year.” Liquid calcium and magnesium are also added to the mix.
After a third rototilling, the soil is ready. “By the time the plants go into the ground, the soil has been amended two or three times with things like crab meal—which is a pest inhibitor—crushed granite, kelp, bone meal, earthworm castings and bat guano.”
In the Ground
Last May, Lambsbread selected six outstanding plants—two each of Lemon Kush, Kali and Jager—that were transplanted from the 2-gallon containers to 30-gallon grow bags with the same premium soil, then grown out for another month in the greenhouse before being put in the ground on June 1. Lambsbread erected light wooden structures and the square cages of field fencing around the holes to support the plants, which grew rapidly.
After the plants had been vegging in the ground for two months, on August 1 Lambsbread gave them a shot of liquid nitrogen and calcium. “They had gotten so big that they had eaten all the nutrients out of the soil,” he says. A week later, he gave them a second feeding, using an organic tea from the Good Earth Organics—“premixed, with live microbes.” Vital Earth is another good source of organic soil and amendments, and Lambsbread is using many of their products for the 2017 season.
At some point in the vegetative cycle, the plants are mulched with alfalfa hay—half a bale per plant, with hay 6 inches deep covering the base of the plant and extending to the edge of the hole’s perimeter. The hay attracts earthworms and provides “shade relief for soil. That gives your roots a better environment to grow in, because the ground could heat up” under Oregon’s summer sun, Lambsbread notes. Mulch also insulates the soil from drying out and helps it retain water, as the hay’s light color reflects heat.
“I believe in underfeeding, but not starving, the plant—but if you follow the feeding instructions, you’ll do the microadjustments,” he says. “I water the plants regularly, but I don’t soak them. I have a timer on my hose, and each plant gets about four 5-gallon buckets of water every four or five days.” He recommends watering in the morning before it gets hot, or in the evening as the sun goes down and the light isn’t hitting the plants—about two hours before sunset in the summer. To apply amendments, he fills up a 50-gallon bucket with the ingredients added to water and then manually feeds the plants around the perimeter of the fencing ring, where the roots are concentrated.
Lambsbread also frequently sprinkles Mykos mycorrhizae in the soil at the base of the plants. “It encourages great soil life,” he says. “It’s beneficial for growth and decomposition; it allows plants to take up nutrients and promotes root growth—completely amazing stuff.
“These are the minuscule, fine-tuning things that could appear to be minutiae, but make the biggest difference,” Lambsbread adds. “You need to understand soil—how to attract earthworms, and how to keep the microbes correct so you don’t have diseases.”
The plants start blooming by the middle of August, and the tall ladder becomes more and more necessary to maintain the plants as they reach for the sky. At this point, Lambsbread adds Maxsea at 25% of the recommended strength to each watering—twice a week, for about a month—and makes sure to use only pure water with no amendments for at least two and a half weeks before the plants get cut down.
In October, the master grower waits for each plant to reach its peak potency before harvesting—although, in 2016, nature dictated the precise moment, in the form of that fall monsoon that flooded the entire meadow. But by then all of his plants were safely indoors, and the clones were preparing for the next bloom cycle.